Stormwater Management Program Replaces City Blight With Absorbent Green Space

The pilot project's 20 acres of grassy plots keep 300,000 gallons of water out of the collections system during heavy rains

Stormwater Management Program Replaces City Blight With Absorbent Green Space

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During the last three years, local job creation and improved stormwater management have been successfully combined in a pilot program in Buffalo, New York. And there’s a good chance the mutually beneficial relationship between the Buffalo Sewer Authority and People United for Sustainable Housing (PUSH) Buffalo — a nonprofit dedicated to affordable housing efforts — will continue going forward.

Through the program, the utility and nonprofit group have been able to complete 20 acres of green infrastructure projects in the city that can keep 300,000 gallons of stormwater out of the collections system every rain event. In the process, more than 50 jobs were created — most filled by local, low-income residents in need of work.

“We applaud the sewer authority in being creative in how they designed the program and its procurement as a large percentage of these project jobs went to Buffalo residents in need of work,” says Jenifer Kaminsky, director of planning and community development for PUSH Buffalo. “I hope other municipalities understand projects like this can be done in a way that not only benefits communities in terms of water quality and environmental benefits, but in terms of job benefits. It’s possible to be creative with procurement parameters so the jobs stay within the communities most impacted.”

Since 1950, the population of the city of Buffalo has decreased about 40 percent, largely the result of a decline in the local industrial base and suburbanization. That has led to a lot of vacant or abandoned properties, but the city has also used that as an opportunity to bolster stormwater retention efforts and keep from overburdening the collections system. The city has been proactive about demolishing dilapidated buildings, but while that removes buildings with structural and environmental hazards, it also leaves the sites in need of additional work — in this case 224 sites to date.

“Once we were done with traditional demolition, we had contractors leave the site about half a foot low so we could put in a spongy soil mixture 4 to 6 inches deep where we hydroseeded it with a low-grow grass. The areas act like sponges,” says O.J. McFoy, director of the Buffalo Sewer Authority. “Like many older cities in the Northeast, we operate a combined sewer system that allows not only sanitary and industrial waste, but also, during heavy wet weather, stormwater is introduced. Weirs placed throughout our system often overflow into surrounding waters, an age-old problem we’ve had to deal with.”

In order to complete the work of turning vacant lots into beneficial stormwater management assets that can help reduce CSOs, PUSH Buffalo proved to be a good partner. The group worked with the Buffalo Sewer Authority through a $1.8 million stipend, which was part of a multi-million-dollar green infrastructure grant from the New York State Environmental Facilities Corporation.

“The 2015-17 Community Water Quality Partnership Program was a pilot project to incorporate more permeability into demolition specifications. We would come in to demoed sites, scarify the area, and put in the special soil mix and grass seed, making the location a bioretention area as well as a lovely lawn for nearby residents, turning a blighted property into green space,” Kaminsky says.

More than 50 new jobs were created during the three-year project with two-thirds of those workers hired locally.

“It represents a taxpayer savings because our green infrastructure comes in at a much less expensive rate than our gray infrastructure,” McFoy says. “Capturing a gallon in a gray infrastructure costs about 50 percent more than capturing one in a green way.  We use our vacant green city lots like municipal sponges to capture the water. We had lemons to work with and we made lemonade. We were able to use our older housing stock to an advantage from a stormwater standpoint while at the same time removing blight.”

More green infrastructure projects lay ahead, so there’s a good chance the relationship between the utility and PUSH Buffalo could extend beyond the work that was completed the past three years.

“We have some $92 million dedicated as part of our action plan to alleviate the effects of combined sewer overflows in the city of Buffalo, so we have a lot more projects like this upcoming,” says McFoy. “This project represented only 20 acres and we’re actually in the process of installing over 1,300 to 1,600 acres of green infrastructure throughout the city that will take about 20 years to complete. Our plan has a due date — March 18, 2034 — that’s already circled on the calendar.”


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